Jonathan Clements reviews a new book on the prolific Takashi Miike
Tom Mes climbed aboard the Takashi Miike bandwagon early, arguing in his 2003 book Agitator that the poster-boy of straight-to-video schlock and shockers was much more than a journeyman director. Agitator itself was part of the message, a beautifully designed, heavily illustrated and weighty tome that still has pride of place on my shelves.
As Mes notes in his introduction to his latest book, the just-published Re-Agitator, even as his first Miikeathon was being published, the supposed maverick was getting selected for the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, and while Miike has remained happily busy in the intervening years, his work has been increasingly highly regarded, even by those who once wrote him off. Audition already had a respectful following of chin-stroking cineaste apologists, and certain pundits (well, me) were pointing to Fudoh: The Next Generation as a triumph of manga adaptation, still rarely matched by other live-action attempts. The Bird People in China was a charming film that showed true versatility, and while Miike’s output remained somewhat scattergun, he really did seem to have done something for everyone, in a dizzying array of genres. And if you don’t like his latest movie… just wait a minute.
Miike’s sheer prolificity, and the relative ease with which his early bargain-bin output made it to foreign distributors, has created a momentum of its own, generating an archive of films ripe for academic dissection, many with elements that foreshadow his later, better-known works. Mes alludes to a growing number of student dissertations on Miike, for which this glossy collection of 35 essays will be a citational godsend.
As the subtitle “A Decade of Writing on Takashi Miike” makes clear, Re-Agitator collates whatever Mes has done Miike-wise in the last ten years, rather than whatever Miike has done himself. As a result, there are accounts of films already covered in the previous book, and a few regrettable omissions – I had really been looking forward to reading what Mes had to say about the bonkers Ace Attorney: The Movie, but with no DVD release abroad, nobody has yet paid Mes to put his thoughts down on paper. I confess to being a little crestfallen that Re-Agitator is not a sequel to the first book, going into similar depth about the thirty-odd films that Miike has made since 2002’s Deadly Outlaw: Rekka. My hopes, then, for close textual analyses of such recent oddities as the juvenile Ninja Kids, or the baffling K-tai Detective 7, have been dashed. But as Mes swiftly points out in his introduction, Agitator was a book of its time, written by an author who did not dare believe that anyone would ever get to see most of these films, and assuming that his account of them might be the only place their artistic heritage would be preserved in the English language.
A decade later, Miike’s works are not only well-represented on subtitled DVD in the West, but often with liner notes by Mes himself, many of which are collected in Re-Agitator. If you are interested in learning more about the guy who made Hara Kiri, then Re-Agitator is as good a place to start as you can hope for. The essays are often rather short, rarely taking up more than two pages, and eschew Agitator’s wordy plot synopses in favour of punchy, pithy assessments of each film within the context of Miike’s work as a whole. They jostle for space with witty accounts of adrenaline-fuelled film festival appearances and longer excursions into Miike’s use of sex, gore or violence.
The book is also lavishly illustrated on quality paper, with superb stills and production photographs, including a whole gallery of beautiful images from the set of Sukiyaki Western Django, donated by Miike’s long-time collaborator Christian Storms. Like Mes’s earlier book on Miike, it is shamefully gorgeous. I speak from bitter experience – the Japanese can be their own worst enemies when it comes to picture rights, and many a book on Japanese pop culture has been dragged, screaming, into text-only tedium by rights-holders who do not see the value in handing over decent images to plug their product. As with his other notable book on Shinya Tsukamoto, Mes goes the extra mile to put images on the pages, imparting a palpable classiness to Miike’s output.
Mes’s essays often assert that Miike has been misunderstood or misrepresented abroad, by both his supporters and detractors. It is interesting to read, for example, of the extended Japanese cut of his wonderful 13 Assassins, which Mes nobly argues is less high-brow, more scatological and humorous, and to my ears at least, somewhat less good than the acclaimed international version. There is an interview with the director himself about the ghostly Great Yokai War, and intriguing pieces on several Miike movies that I have never even heard of – it’s tough keeping up with them all.
The end result is a thing that borders on coffee-table beauty, although you might like to skip the foreword by the aforementioned Storms, which is by turns aggressive, defensive and condescending, and strikes an unnecessarily negative note at the beginning of an otherwise joyous book.
Re-Agitator: A Decade of Writing on Takashi Miike, by Tom Mes, is out now in hardback from FAB Press.